Opinion: 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of some women in Ireland winning the right to vote, but there are still many obstacles to full gender empowerment

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her suffrage supporters established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Britain, kick-starting the Votes for Women campaign and the "Deeds Not Words" slogan. By 1908, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, husband Francis, and Margaret Cousins had created the Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL). Influenced by the militancy of the WSPU, these Irish suffragists pushed their ideology of "suffrage first, before all else", smashing the windows of the GPO, the Custom’s House, and Dublin Castle, for which they served jail sentences.

By the time the right to vote was reluctantly granted in 1918 to women (under the restricted conditions of age, property rights and education), over 1,000 campaigning suffragists had been imprisoned, many being force-fed whilst on hunger strike. Others, like Emily Wilding Davison, had literally given their lives to the cause. It took a further ten years before all women were electorally recognised as equal to men and allowed to vote at 21 years of age.

Although the suffrage campaign is considered to be the definitive first wave of feminism, it was followed by many movements throughout the 20th century calling for legislation to address gender discrimination. A number of legislative successes have been achieved, most notably around pay and contraception, however; the promised land still appears to hover tantalisingly over the horizon. So, to paraphrase Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, is it now the case that women, having secured the right to vote, are content that all battles had been won?

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, a report on events to mark 100 years since women won the right to vote in Ireland

Whilst recognising that women in first world countries like Ireland and Britain are relatively privileged in comparison to most of those in developing countries, it is notable that the first world #MeToo movement on sexual harassment is drawing momentum from a diverse demographic of whistle-blowers of all ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. In addition to the brave body of women from our past, we can welcome a swathe of younger feminists who continue to challenge gender boundaries. These include June Eric-Udorie, instrumental in adding feminism as a subject to England’s school curriculum, and Laura Bates of the on-line Everyday Sexism project.

But does this mean that women are finally experiencing empowerment 100 years on? And how would we recognise it anyway?

Gender empowerment is generally considered to be a process by which women redefine and extend what is possible for them to be and do in situations where they have been restricted, compared to men. Obstacles to empowerment, including the separate norms, beliefs, customs and values that societies use to differentiate between women and men, are still widespread, although many women do make choices that go against cultural or social expectations. Empowerment is an on-going process, not a final goal, and we can only feel empowered or disempowered, relative to others or relative to ourselves at a previous time. Some literature argues that empowerment cannot be bestowed, but must be won.

If we do not investigate older rural women, how are we to understand their feelings on empowerment?

Thus, our government cannot dictate empowerment through legislation that it chooses to control, but should instead be led by the actions of women. What governments, agencies such as United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), UN Women, and charities like CARE International can do is to create and sustain the kinds of socio-economic conditions that will support and allow women themselves to find their own empowerment.

Everyday societal sexism and ageism, singly or combined, can be so subtle as to become unremarkable. Even the relative paucity of academic research on mid-life rural women speaks something of this cohort’s invisibility. If we do not investigate older rural women as a separate major unit of analysis, how are we to understand their feelings on empowerment?

In a recent study of mid-life rural women in Ireland, almost half the participants reported feelings of empowerment at mid-life but, given the subjective interpretation of this term, a closer look at participant narrative can sometimes suggest otherwise. Thus, whilst most participants felt sufficiently "empowered" at the pivotal mid-life stage to largely ignore the dictates of fashion, and were proud to cite wisdom and experience as valued assets, most also spoke of rural societal constraints that directly influenced their quality of life.

From RTÉ Archives, Marian Finucane reflects on progress in women’s rights over the last 20 years on International Women’s Day 1991 on The Late Late Show

Such constraints included sitting at home of an evening rather than frequenting alone the only social outlet, the local pub. Another was the decision not to date local men for fear of having one’s private life discussed openly in the local community. Some participants spoke of partners controlling money, work or place decisions. Others spoke of the frustration at not being able to access training or education that might support their quest for empowerment.

All participants spoke of their fears around a loss of autonomy and agency through physical or cognitive impairment, and the consequent possibility of institutional care. Most rural participants did not earn enough to save enough to pay for private healthcare or contribute to private pension schemes. All expressed a fear of reliance upon a volatile state pension scheme that would be unlikely to support their independence in older age.

Almost no participant wanted a family member to have the "burden" of caring for them in later life (although they were prepared to care for others) and simply "hoped for the best" in the absence of an alternative. Whilst most had their own car at mid-life, participants were acutely aware of a time in later life when they may not be allowed to drive. All reported such a scenario as being highly disempowering.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report on International Women's Day 1986 featuring Caroline McCamley talking about the Council for the Status of Women

In summary, women felt empowered by an inner sense of experience and wisdom, but simultaneously anxious about a time ahead when they might lose control of their health and employment abilities. In addition to rural political disadvantage, these may well leave them vulnerable and exposed to social exclusion from essential services and resources in older age, and ultimately to a poorer quality of life.

Older rural women are generally resilient and positive, but they cannot do it all alone. 100 years on, there is still an imperative for collaborative legislative and non-legislative interventions that favour those who are routinely exposed to sexism and/or ageism, and that encourage the means through education, training, employment, health, and rural place that enable women to empower themselves.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ